Religion and Ethics

For the sake of simplicity we shall look at Christian Ethics

There are three areas of questions here.

1 The historical development of Christian Ethics.
2 The way in which the churches follow certain principles.
3 The contrast between Christian ethical theories and other ethical theories.

Initial Question

This comes from Plato originally and is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma.

It asks “Is something good because God wills it ?… Or does God will it because it is good?”

Both of these statements pose problems for religious ethics. The first implies that everything God says and does is good because God does it. That may include killing, favouritism and it affects moral questions such as the Christian attitude to homosexuality which is condemned in the Bible. The second suggests that God is not the ultimate authority on goodness!

1 The historical development of Christian Ethics.


Old Testament ethics centres around man doing as he is told by God. The first five chapters of the Bible contain a good deal of legal material such as the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant. Today many of the demands seem fairly fundamental such as “You shall not murder…you shall not steal…you shall not bear false witness.” But prohibitions against homosexuality, mixing certain types of food and not wearing clothes with more than one type of cloth in them, seem intrusive or trivial. People seem to be either “doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord” or “sinning” and there isn’t really much in between.

NEW TESTAMENT Jesus doesn’t seem to appear with a ready made ethic. He was a Jew and kept the laws of the Fathers. So the important legal bits of the Old Testament all re-appear in the life of Jesus, including the ten commandments. His approach though seems more people centered and less legalistic. He breaks Sabbath rules when he feels there is a need. He associates with undesirables instead of stressing purity. He is a curious mixture of what we call today Situation Ethics and Virtue Ethics. There are some main themes that you need to think about Kingdom of God…loving one’s neighbour as oneself. It is also a good idea to be familiar with the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:3-11.

ST PAUL Paul is such a mixture of ideas that he can be very confusing. On the one hand he had been an Orthodox Jew, so there is still a lot of Pharisaic hang-ups – especially with regard to the position of women and sexuality in general. His dress and method of working owes much to 1st century rabbinic practices. He was also conscious of the life changing impact of Jesus. All that Jesus stood for and especially the teaching about the resurrection and its importance for believers. Lastly he felt he had to produce some sort of order in the churches. Paul takes the simple religion of a Palestinian preacher and begins to shape it into a system that will overturn the religions of the Roman Empire. Remember Paul and all his anti-law feelings. Christians can be justified by belief in Jesus and do not need to be followers of the law. Remember too his emphasis on the law of love 1 Corinthians 13

2 The way in which the churches follow certain principles.Roman Catholicism
Has followed the authoritarian line In terms of a person this has focused on the Pope, who Catholics believe is infallible. He will issue encyclicals and papal teachings. Authority of the Church Fathers is also a feature of this church, especially the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas – see Natural Law.

On matters of behaviour the act is given greater importance than the consequences.

Roman Catholics therefore have specific teaching on issues such as marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, IVF and genetic engineering.

Here there is a great divide between Liberal Christians and Conservative Christians

Liberal Protestants see agape as the dominating issue. One writer Paul Ramsey has said, “The central ethical notion or category in Christian ethics is obedient love… the love that fulfils the law”

Some say everything is lawful; everything is permitted which Christian lover permits.

For some Liberal Christians Situation Ethics fulfils this need. There is a much greater emphasis here for relativist ethics.

The outcome or consequences of an action dictate the value of what is right and what is wrong. Ethical relativism Situation Ethics Utilitarianism – especially in environmental matters, higher and lower pleasures and even preference utilitarianism.

That is not to say that there are not matters which Liberal Protestants would not condemn outright – eg murder or child abuse, but if agape is applied as a guiding principle then it can take on a deontological significance.

Conservative Protestants believe that the Bible teachings have absolute authority. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount take on absolute authority and provide an enduring human law, which gives guidance for people today. This can be seen in the position adopted by the African Churches on issues such as homosexuality.

The Old Testament and St Paul both condemn the practice. This lead is followed by many African Bishops and their congregations. Contraception, abortion, euthanasia, IVF and genetic engineering are not hot topics in the Bible so the attitude of Conservative Protestants is much more lenient here. What is curious is their failure to follow the Biblical reservations about the roles of women in the churches.

OrthodoxThe Orthodox Church teaches that conscience is the literal voice of God. This does not mean that Orthodox Christians indulge in a free for all ethical policy.

In major matters of life, death and behaviour they are indistinguishable from Roman Catholics. Absolutist principles judging the act rather than the consequences Abortion, euthanasia, IVF etc In some matters though there is a subtle difference eg divorce.

When Aquinas says it is always right to follow your conscience, he means it is always right to apply moral principles to each situation. Conscience is reasoning used correctly to find out what God sees is good. It is not just the voice inside us.

3 The contrast between Christian ethical theories and other ethical theories.


  • Morality for a utilitarian depends on what works
  • If it is workable, it should be accepted despite what the rules say.
  • Utilitarians lay emphasis on the consequences.
  • It is a relativist ethic.
  • There are some similarities with John Stuart Mill. Higher and lower principles look a bit like Christianity.
  • Jesus taught about the coming kingdom of God. This is similar in a way to the hope of utilitarians.
  • Mill quotes the example of Jesus’ sacrifice of his own happiness.
  • Bentham though explicitly stated that self sacrifice in the cause of others was wrong.
  • Utilitarianism is about avoiding pain – Christians do not necessarily think pain is bad – eg Christian martyrs.


kant was a religious man and he did not doubt the existence of God. His belief though was a matter of faith. He maintained that morality was autonomous. It does not depend on circumstances, consequences or the existence of God.

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